Happy Kyrie Day.
After missing two months with a shoulder injury — and admitting he feared season-ending surgery — Kyrie Irving finally made his long-awaited return Sunday. And he made the Nets look like a whole different team.
With the Nets getting both Irving and Caris LeVert — who returned last week — back in the lineup, they looked energized and inspired in a thorough 108-86 thrashing of the Hawks at Barclays Center.
“I missed the game, missed these fans … I’m grateful to be out here, I worked extremely hard to get back,” Irving said in an on-court TV interview. “I love the game, I missed it so much.”
After having missed 26 straight games, Irving showed no rust in his first action since Nov. 14. He had 21 points, four rebounds and three assists in 20 uber-efficient minutes with his 10-for-11 shooting performance the best percentage of his career.
But numbers doesn’t begin to tell the tale of his impact.
The Nets shot 53.2 percent and 10 of 26 from deep to lead by as many as 39, and Irving was the catalyst in this catharsis.
Kenny Atkinson said having Irving back in practice and on the verge of a comeback lifted their spirits in Friday’s win over Miami, the Southeast Division leaders. But having the guard actually back on the court against the NBA’s worst team went as well as one could expect.
“He’s ready. Good news for us,” Atkinson said. “The buildup was good, but then getting the team practice, really getting to see him in that environment, it helped us in the Miami game. It was an infusion of energy and lifted our spirits. Now obviously to have him out there, it’s great for the Nets, great for him.”
With Irving back, Atkinson opted to keep red-hot Spencer Dinwiddie (eight assists) in the lineup in a two-point guard setup, and move Garrett Temple to the bench.
Irving had four points and two assists as the Nets took a quick 10-2 lead. And he kept his foot on the Hawks’ collective throats, spurring the Nets to a 21-9 cushion by the time he sat down for a break.
Now with the luxury of Dinwiddie running the second unit, the Nets pushed it to 37-16 on a Caris LeVert (13 points) floater that just beat the buzzer, their highest-scoring first quarter of the season.
Dinwiddie’s driving layup pushed it to 70-46 at the break, a torrid 65.8 percent from the floor marking their best-shooting first half since April 4, 2017.
The Nets eventually led by 39, on LeVert’s cutting layup for an 89-50 cushion with 5:34 left in the third. They led wire-to-wire in a game that was more of a celebration than a contest.
The Nets held Atlanta — who played without Trae Young — to 33 percent shooting, and a horrid 12 of 48 from deep.
“We can be very dangerous,” Irving said. “We’ve got to play together. If we do the right things on the defensive end, we’ll be OK.”
That’s been their DNA while Irving and LeVert were out. And with Irving — not known as a defensive glove the past few years — returning to the lineup, Atkinson insists they can keep up their recent stout play.
“I thought Kyrie competed his tail off defensively in the  games he played, so, just continue that way,” Atkinson said. “It’s really our identity right now. That’s where we’re different. We’re 11th, 12th, 13th in defense. It’s kept us afloat over the season. … That’s what we’re hanging our hat on.
“With some moving parts right now, we’re going to have to figure out the schemes and the philosophy that’s going to work with whoever is in the lineup. But I don’t see us changing much.”
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